Archive for the ‘Four Stars’ Category


Here is a book I give four stars, because I cannot think of a book more relevant today.

It tells the true story of four undocumented Latino teenagers from Mexico in Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix. In 2004, against all odds, they started a robotics team under the guidance of two extraordinary and inspiring teachers. They built an underwater robot (in the Arizona desert) and took it to the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were up against some of the most renowned engineering schools in the county, like MIT, funded by grants of thousands of dollars. Their robot was built out of spare parts, PVC pipe bought at Home Depot, glue, a briefcase, all stuff they found around the house and the garage. The robot wasn’t pretty. They called it Stinky, because the glue they used stunk.

Against all odds, they won.

Spare Parts tells the story of four kids, Oscar, Cristian, Luis, and Lorenzo, how they came to live in the United States, what brought them to Carl Hayden High School, what motivated them, and what happened to them after they created national headlines with their unexpected underdog success.

Spare Parts tells the story of undocumented aliens in the United States. Each of these kids was as American as you or I. They were brought to the country by their parents when they were infants, toddlers, or elementary school kids. Yes, they were born in Mexico, but they knew no reality than their lives in the barrios of Phoenix. They were Americans and they could not understand why they didn’t get the same opportunities their American-born friends got. They were marked.

Their crime was that their parents brought them into the country by sneaking through a hole in a fence somewhere in the desert. They were guilty, and they were illegal, because their parents committed a crime, the crime of trying to make better lives for themselves and their families.

I am not advocating that it’s right to slip through the fence on the border to improve your lives. We have laws, and they don’t permit this. But I am advocating that it is not right to punish children for the crimes of their parents. Yet, our laws do exactly that.

Read Spare Parts and get a view into the lives of four teenagers, all of whom found themselves in this extraordinary situation, where they were very smart, driven, dedicated, hard-working, willing to serve their country, but not permitted to do so and ostracized and criminalized for it. Read Spare Parts to understand the problem.

Not only did these four teenagers in 2004 create extraordinary success for themselves, they started a movement. Carl Hayden High School has gone on to win many competitions in robotics all over the country since then. More students at the school get engineering scholarships than all sports combined. The interest in engineering has gone through the roof, and the program is now renowned.

Spare Parts refers to Jeff Sessions and Barack Obama. Both have appearances in the book. In 2001, Senator Dick Durbin had introduced legislation to provide a path to citizenship for young immigrants who had been in the United States for at least five years and were attending college. That was the Development, Relief, and Education for Minors Act, the “DREAM Act.” The bill failed to even make it to a vote. In 2010, he tried again, using Oscar Vazquez, one of the four teenagers in Spare Parts, as an example. Senate Republicans commenced a filibuster, blocking the vote.

“This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity.”

— Senator Jeff Sessions

The Senate needed 60 votes to break the filibuster. They only got 55.

Spare Parts was written and copyrighted in 2014. Enter Trump in 2017. Jeff Sessions, the Illustrious, is now our Attorney General. Guess what will happen to immigrants now? Donald Trump has signed orders to have Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents round up “illegals” and deport them, sometimes without due process. Trump has blatantly labeled Mexicans rapists and murderers. Trump is fomenting xenophobia. Trump is stirring up vigilantism. Trump is dividing the country.

Reading Spare Parts will give you insight into the plight of illegal immigrant children and their despair about finding their own place in a world where they can’t figure out where they belong. I challenge you to read this book, and then come to me and defend Trump’s current approach.

I challenge you!

Rating - Four Stars



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A friend (JD) during a personal meeting recently commented about my post on the book Red Notice and how I had given it four stars. He observed that I don’t give four stars very often. This prompted me to search for all books I have given four stars in the last two years. I found these twelve listed below. The definition of four stars for a book is contained in my Ratings Key:

Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.

So here is Norbert Haupt’s reading list of the last two years of four star books:

Red Notice – by Bill Browder – a true story about corruption in Russia at the highest level of government, that stops at nothing, even killing people that get in the way.

Hungerwinter – by Alexander Häusser and Gordian Maugg – a documentary about what happened to the people of Germany after World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime, and the incredible hardships they had to endure for years. This book is written in German.

Prophet’s Prey – by Sam Brower – the story of one man’s quest to bring down the polygamist leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, as it is commonly referred to, Warren Jeffs.

Kiss Every Step – by Doris Martin with Ralph S. Martin – the personal account of Doris Martin, who survived a three-year-stay at the Nazi labor camp in Ludwigsdorf as a young girl. I met the author herself in my local bookstore.

Napoleon – by Andrew Roberts – and outstanding, captivating biography of one of history’s most iconic leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived – by Greg Steinmetz – the story of Jacob Fugger, who was born in 1459 in Augsburg, Germany and died 1525, at the age of 66. He single-handedly created a banking and trade empire that reached to all ends of the globe. He also financed most of Europe’s wars of his time.

All the Light we Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr – a novel about two children in World War II and how their entire lives were shaped by the events of that age.

Zero to One – by Peter Thiel – a book about entrepreneurship and starting a tech company by the maddeningly self-absorbed Peter Thiel, who recently attracted additional notoriety by being a strong and outspoken supporter of Donald Trump. Thiel’s book is a great guide for budding entrepreneurs.

Elon Musk – by Ashlee Vance – a biography of Elon Musk, one of the world’s most admired entrepreneurs. Musk is the Thomas Edison of our time.

King Rat – by James Clavell – the classic novel about life in a prison camp in Asia during World War II.

How to Win at the Sport of Business – by Mark Cuban – a marvelous auto-biography by entrepreneur Mark Cuban on how he started his business empire. Very inspiring.

The World Without Us – by Alan Weisman – a book about what would happen if all the humans in the world suddenly disappeared. How long would the lights stay on?

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Bill Browder started his career on Wall Street and was drawn first to Eastern Europe and then to Russia shortly after the Soviet Union broke apart. He started an investment fund and eventually became the largest foreign investor in Russia. In the process of privatizing, Russia ended up with twenty-two oligarchs owning 39 percent of the economy, while everyone else lives in poverty. In that environment, by investing in Russian businesses, Browder made a fortune for himself and his clients.

Then he noticed some anomalies within the companies he had invested in. Big chunks of the companies were stolen, leaving the investors diluted. As he drilled down into the complex schemes underway, he discovered massive fraud involving investors, regulatory agencies, law enforcement, the judicial system, and government in general, up to the highest level. He found that Russia was basically a criminal enterprise designed to suck the resources out of the country into the pockets of a few dozen people, legitimized by the status of Russia as a powerful nation.

As Browder keep digging into the corruption, he met with more and more resistance, and soon people started getting killed. The book tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, one of Browder’s lawyers, who was tortured and eventually killed by the Russian authorities. When Browder starting fighting back, Putin himself came after Browder and his life was never the same again.

Browder lives in London, and at one time in 2012 he came to San Diego for a vacation:

Things quieted down during the recess, and I enjoyed a properly relaxing vacation with my kids for the first time in years. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to just let go and unwind. In the middle of our trip, my kids begged me to take them camping. We borrowed a tent and some sleeping bags, and I drove the family to Palomar Mountain State Park, an hour and half drive north of San Diego, where we got a campsite for the night. We brought wood from the ranger station and made a campfire and explored the forest. David cooked and we ate a dinner of spaghetti, tomato sauce, and hot dogs off plastic plates. As night fell, owls hooted and other birds cooed in the treetops, and the smell of burning wood filled the air. It was one of the best evenings I’d had in a long time. When I returned to London, I was recharged and ready for the final push.

— Browder, Bill. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (p. 344). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

I have been to that campground many times, and it brought the story into my emotional neighborhood.

Today, when Russia and Putin is so prevalent in the news, and when the Trump administration seems to be cozy with Putin and Russia, this book is an absolute must read for everyone in the world. Russia is not what it seems. Whatever it may be, it’s also an organized crime machine. Putin is arguably one of the richest men in the world. How does that happen on a government salary?

If you have ever thought of doing business of any type in Russia, just read Red Notice, and you will never, ever have that inkling again. Even travel to Russia becomes as risky and unpleasant proposition. If you have wanted to travel to Russia, just read Red Notice and get it out of your system.

Enter Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon and buddy of Putin. After reading Red Notice, I cannot imagine how Tillerson and Exxon got into their position with Putin without having participated in some massive, illegal scheme. Of course, I don’t know what that is. I am sure we’ll find out about it in the years and decades to come. But I would not trust Rex Tillerson paying for a round of beers with my credit card if he were a bartender. Having him become Secretary of State after having read Red Notice is an absolutely frightening thought.

Having our government with Trump and Tillerson in the lead be cozy with Russia is the most dangerous and ominous prospect imaginable. Is our own government now starting to drift toward Russian-type corruption? It certainly looks that way, and Trumps actions with regard to anything Russian sure make me very suspicious.

I love the Russian culture, its history, its people and its art. I have read Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Their novels are some of my favorite in the world. The Russian people are smart, educated, and hard-working. But their government is miserable. And the country is hopelessly corrupt. 75 years of communism have destroyed their ability to show initiative and create honest businesses and governing structures. 25 years of post-communism have raided the country of its resources and put all the wealth into the hands of – well – twenty-two oligarchs. Read about them on the Forbes list. After reading Red Notice, it’s obvious that you have to be a thug to be that rich in Russia.

In the world of Trump and Putin – every American, and every world citizen, must read Red Notice. It will open your eyes unlike any book you have read in a long time.

Rating - Four Stars

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The Queen of Katwe is a true story. In 2007, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl in Katwe, a small rural town in Uganda, whose job it is to sell corn in the markets to support her family. Her mother lost her husband and was raising four children on her own. By coincidence, Phiona was introduced to the game of chess. Within a short time it became obvious that she had the talent of a prodigy, and she was lucky enough that her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) recognized it and dedicated himself to promoting her. Her life changed rapidly as she developed her skills. Would she be able to muster the confidence and strength of character to achieve her dream of becoming an international chess champion?

Queen of Katwe plays mostly in the slums of Uganda. The people live in hovels and piles of rubble. They obtain water from a running spout that comes out of a hill of mud. People are exposed to the weather. It is never clear where the next meal comes from. Nobody is safe. Everyone claws for survival. Yet, the people seem happy.

Sitting in an air-conditioned theater in Southern California, I was as far away as possible from the heat, dust, bugs, sweat, noise, and stink of Africa. Yet, the artist in me was overwhelmed with the colors of the buildings, the clothes, and the spark in the eyes of the people. The story drew me in immediately and never let me go.

I play chess just well enough to know its challenges and the pain and elation it can produce in a person’s heart. There isn’t a villain in this story. The challenges just come from the incredible hardships of everyday life in extreme poverty.

It’s a feel-good story, and there were tears rolling down my cheeks pretty much all through the movie, from the beginning to the very end, when the credits rolled, and the characters stood next to the living characters of the true story of the Queen of Katwe.

It was a four-star experience all the way.

Rating - Four Stars

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Translation of Title:

Winter of Hunger – Germany’s Humanitarian Catastrophe of 1946/47

My father was born in 1936 in Breslau, Germany which is now Wrocław, Poland. When I was a child, I remember our father telling us about how there was nothing to eat after the war. He was the second oldest child of six siblings. His mother would cut a loaf of bread in half, and then cut the half into six slices and lay them out on the kitchen counter. Since he was the second oldest, he knew that the second largest slice (from the middle of the loaf) was his. Each sibling was allotted a slice of bread and that was their food for the day.

My father told that story many times when we were little and he wanted to make a point when we didn’t want to eat our broccoli at the dinner table, or when we didn’t want to finish what was on our plate. My father is now 80 years old, and he still clears his plate no matter how full it is.

He recently visited us in the United States and we took him to Claim Jumper, a restaurant known for its American fare and truly huge portions. Unbelievably, my father cleared his plate.

As a child, I was tired of the story of the six slices of bread. I never paid much attention to it. Now that my father is 80, and he shares more about his childhood and youth, I am beginning to understand, after all these years, just how much his entire life was shaped by his childhood during World War II and his youth in the aftermath of  the war. His life was destroyed before it had even really started, and he struggled his entire life to come to terms with the immense damage that was inflicted on his life.

During his last visit in July he brought the book Hungerwinter with him and urged me to read it. It is written in German and I assume there are no translations.

When we think of the end of World War II, we think of Hitler’s suicide in Berlin in May of 1945. Then we realize it took another three months and two nuclear bombs in Japan before the war was completely over. The concentration camps in Europe were liberated, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Wrong. So very wrong.

Nobody thinks much about what happened to Germany after the war. Hungerwinter tells the crushing story of the immense misery of the German people in the aftermath of the war. It is a forgotten story, one that even children of Germany born about 10 years after the war – like myself – never heard much about or had strong feelings about.

Hitler’s folly sent a generation of men into far-away places to be broken and often to die. Sometimes the prisoners of war took two or three years after the war before they returned home. During the war, Germany’s schools were closed. Since all the men were gone, and later all the boys too, everything was left to the women to maintain. Due to the bombing, the country was in ruin and a huge percentage of housing was either reduced to rubble or seriously damaged to the point of being unlivable. Factories had been destroyed by bombs. Roads and railroad lines, was well as locomotives and railroad cars were largely destroyed by raids. Farms had not been kept running during the war, due to the lack of peace, and of men.

When the Russians closed in from the east at the end of the war, they often systematically raped all women and girls, sometime so badly they had to be hospitalized for months afterwards. Many women were broken for life.

Hitler and the Nazis were gone, and the four victorious powers, Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, divided the country into four quarters. Each quarter was administered and governed by its occupying nation. Groceries or raw ingredients, like grain, flower, sugar, milk, potatoes and cheese were simply not available. To top it all off, the winter between 1946 and 1947, was the strongest, longest and coldest winter of the century. There was nothing to heat with, no coal, oil, or wood. There was no infrastructure to deliver coal to where it was needed, to fuel trains and factories, and to heat homes. Hundreds of thousands of people froze and starved, became ill and died.

Hungerwinter tells of what it was like in Germany in 1945, 1946 and 1947, when the rest of the world was glad that fascism was defeated and peace was upon us by introducing us to specific families, and telling us their stories and anecdotes.

The people telling the stories are now all in their eighties, like my father, and it took me 60 years and reading this little book that he gave me, to understand that his life was ruined before it had even started. His mother died in childbirth in 1946, his father, who was gone in the war for the entire six years was a stranger, and the Hungerwinter left the motherless family of six children, with one infant, with a father they didn’t even know, fighting for their survival. Now I know and believe that he never got over what happened to him in his childhood.

I was born ten years later.

Rating - Four Stars

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Prophets Prey

San Brower is a private investigator who took on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, as it is commonly referred to, and gradually, over years of painstaking work, exposed it and its leader and “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, as an organized criminal enterprise of massive proportions.

Prophet’s Prey is his chilling exposé of the Fundamentalist Mormon religion and the endless, brutal crimes perpetrated by the “leadership” all in the name of God.

The FLDS is acult with its headquarters in Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, two neighboring towns in a remote and isolated strip of the country, bordered by the Grand Canyon to the south and cliffs to the north. Pretty much all the people who live there are part of the cult.

The Mormon religion was founded by Joseph Smith in 1820. In my opinion, Smith was a pedophile and a con man. He started a religion to create a lifestyle for himself. When he eventually was murdered, Brigham Young, another autocratic child abuser and power-grabbing dictator built up the Mormon church. One of the tenets of the religion was polygamy. When the practice started becoming unpopular in the United States about 100 years ago, the “mainstream” Mormons renounced polygamy.

Some of the faithful didn’t like that, and eventually split off to start the FLDS. It exists to this day.

The flock is not allowed to listen to the radio, watch TV or movies, read books, listen to music or get an education. Most children stop school at the elementary level. The people have lived in this environment their entire lives and are completely brainwashed about what the “real world” is like. They think they are God’s chosen people, and their leader is the prophet who speaks God’s will. Everyone is in on it. The doctors and nurses in the hospital. The judges. The police. The mayor. The bishop. The contractors. The health inspectors. The teachers. You can’t escape the reach of the church leadership, and their word, their will, is God’s word and will. People blindly follow orders, whether the orders are legal or not.

When God wants the prophet to be “sealed” to a 12-year-old girl in marriage, then the father of that child has no choice but give up his daughter. Systematic child abuse, rape of boys as young as five to eight years old in the guise of God’s will, and getting underage girls as young as 12 and 13 pregnant by the dozens is apparently commonplace and normal in that environment.

Prophets Prey 2

A recently married and newly pregnant Veda Keate, the thirteen-year-old daughter of convicted child molester Allen Keate. Shortly after Allen gave Veda in marriage to Warren, he took an underage bride of his own. He is serving thirty-three years in Huntsville State Prison in Texas.

— Brower, Sam (2011-08-01). Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (p. 311). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Prophets Prey 1

Ora Bonnie Steed posing with underage sister wife Veda Keate. Warren wrote that both conceived their babies during the same “heavenly session” with him. Veda also appeared in a photo in a National Geographic cover story on the FLDS, along with her daughter Serena. The caption in the magazine identified them only as two of the children taken in the raid on the YFZ Ranch.

— Brower, Sam (2011-08-01). Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (p. 311). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

“Heavenly session” is what the man of God and FLDS leader calls group sex with multiple underage girls at the same time – because somehow that helps the salvation of the world. The entire religion buys into this.

One girl, who eventually escaped, tells her story of growing up in a house with 20 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms with her father, his six wives and 52 children. This seems normal to them. Yet, we all know that this kind of lifestyle is not supportable. Most American’s have trouble supporting a family of four or five people with two incomes. How does a man support six wives and 52 children?

By having five of the wives apply for welfare as single mothers with the State of Arizona or Utah, or both. By sending boys as young as 11 off to work on construction sites as slave laborers. By sucking as much money as possible out of the system, out of our taxes and welfare money. They call it “bleeding the beast” and justify it since they are God’s chosen people.

Prophet’s Prey is a shocking book that provides a view into what almost seems like an alternate universe. It is astonishing that these things can be going on right now, in our time, with very little interference from law enforcement of any kind. After reading Prophet’s Prey, you will never think about the Mormon religion the same way again.

The “mainstream” Mormons are distancing themselves from the Fundamentalists. I don’t buy it. It’s the same messed-up cult, just a different, more drastic flavor of it.

But read about it yourself, and be your own judge. Prophet’s Prey is a must-read book for any educated and responsible American.

Rating - Four Stars

Other articles and reviews I wrote related to Mormonism:

Play Review: The Book of Mormon

Mormon Apostles Paid Off

Mormon Handcarts

Romney Going Psycho about Mormonism

To Mormon or Not to Mormon

Mormonism in Decline

Institutional Lies and Deception of Mormonism

Atrocities in Mormon History

Mormon Doctrine on Race (White and Black)

Mormons and Masturbation

Mormons Baptize Jews Posthumously

Book Review: Wife No. 19 – by Ann Eliza Young

Park Romney’s Book and Mitt Romney’s Waffling

Book Review: An American Fraud – by Kate Burningham


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Kiss Every Step

A few weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked into our local Barnes & Noble in Escondido for a little browsing. Near the door was a little old lady with a display easel and a stack of books. She looked up at me, held one of the books, and said “This is my book!”

Kiss Every Step 1

[picture credit: The Charterian]

It took me a few moments of talking with her before I realized that she was Doris Martin, and she pointed to herself on a photograph of prisoners in front of a cattle car in Auschwitz.

Doris Martin is 90 years old, and she spends her afternoons standing in the lobby of our book store telling her remarkable story of survival. I had the honor of buying a signed copy of her book, and talking with her for a few moments. She was 13 years old when World War II started.

It won’t be long now before all eye witnesses of this terrible time in the history of humanity will no longer be alive. I am grateful for every book they wrote, every story they told, and every tear they shed. Because those stories need to be told, as an everlasting lesson to those of us lucky enough to be born decades after the maelstrom of evil we now call the holocaust.

I find it despicable that there are actually people around today, called holocaust deniers, that claim the entire thing didn’t actually happen. It’s a spit in the face of every living Jew, it’s a trampling on the graves of every one of the 12 million Jews that were slaughtered, and it’s a terrible insult to those who lived through this awful time and survived to tell the story.

Doris Martin is one of those. She spent three years in a labor camp in Ludwigsdorf as a young girl. The book tells the story of her parents and her siblings, a Jewish family lucky enough to have all members survive the war and reunite afterwards. The odds must have been one in a million. Perhaps they were the only ones.

Kiss Every Step is a book everyone should read. It illustrates what happens when a minority, in this case a religious one, gets ostracized and cast out of society, initially through subtle regulation, soon through brutal discrimination and racism, and finally by outright, open, unfettered, blatant murder.

It happened in 1933 in Germany.

Unfortunately, and frighteningly, traces of this are happening right here, right now, in 2016 in the United States of America. Watch out!

Rating - Four Stars

Link to the official website of Kiss Every Step

Other posts related to the holocaust in this blog:

Visualize 12 Million People

Movie Review: Sarah’s Key

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – by William Shirer

Book Review: Auschwitz – by Miklos Nyiszli

Book Review: Five Chimneys – by Olga Lengyel

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl

Book Review: Yellow Star – by Jennifer Roy

Rantings of a Kook: Holocaust Denier – Ingrid Rimland Zundel

Holocaust Memorial in Iowa

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr

Book Review: Der Gelbe Stern – by Gerhard Schoenberner

Book Review: Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl



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Definition of: Revenant

— one that returns after death or a long absence


Watching The Revenant was exhausting. 2 hours and 36 minutes long, it didn’t let go. Not for a minute.

It took me into the icy winter of Montana. Inspired by true events that happened to the legendary explorer Hugh Glass in 1823 in Montana and South Dakota, the movie tells a story of betrayal and redemption. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a member of a hunting and trapping party in the wild west. After they are raided by hostile Indians and decimated, Glass gets surprised and attacked by a female grizzly who is protecting her cubs. Glass was mauled so badly that his friends did not expect him to survive. Three men, including Glass’ half Indian son, stay behind with him until he dies, while the rest of the party moves on. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the most experienced frontiersman, decides to abandon Glass. Against unimaginable odds, Glass survives, and starts his journey of 200 miles through the winter wilderness of Montana, alone, without weapons, only able to crawl, his body covered with festering wounds, driven by sheer willpower and relentless pursuit of redemption.

I have hiked mountains in Montana with a bear can in my pack in case I encountered a grizzly. After watching the grizzly attack in The Revenant, I know just how utterly helpless a modern human would be if attacked by a grizzly. The speed, size and ferocity of an angry bear is unmatched by any other predator in the world. A hardened frontiersman like Glass with a rifle in hand pointed at the bear could do nothing to protect himself. My puny bear spray can in my pack would be totally useless. Oh my, will I ever again have the courage to hike in the great north?

The bear attack in this movie alone is worth watching. Mind you, it’s very challenging and difficult, but it’s the most realistic and graphic animal attack I have ever seen in a movie. It’s so realistic, I felt I was there, I was groaning, gasping, and – I admit – I looked away a few times.

The scenery of the mountains in Montana (actually filmed in Canada and then in Southern Argentina, when they ran out of winter in the north) was breathtaking. As a lover of the outdoors, I enjoyed watching the winter wilderness. This is a movie for “winter people.” The movie constantly shoves the cold and unforgiving brutality of nature into our faces.

It also brings out the battles between the American and French trappers and the various Indian bands. Why did the Indians go after the whites so ferociously? Why did the whites kill, maim, and rape the Indians. Why did one side cheat and steal from the other? The Revenant gives an unadulterated look into a grim and violent period of American history, not so far in the past at all.

Leonardo DiCaprio did the job of his lifetime here. This will get him his Oscar. He not only carries the movie, DiCaprio is the movie. From the first minute, to the last, he overpowers us with the sheer pain, wildness, and ferocious will of the character he plays. It does not seem like he acts. We are watching Hugh Glass, being crushed by his environment, over, and over, and over again – only to stand up and rise next. DiCaprio takes us into the wilderness with him, and into the soul of a frontiersman and trapper, and the father of an Indian child, and the husband of an Indian woman.

The Revenant is not a movie. It’s an experience. And it is hard work to watch.

Rating - Four Stars


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I knew very little about Napoleon. I had never read about that period of European history. Yet, now, after reading this masterful biography of over 800 pages, I feel truly enriched.

Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769 to an average family. His father died when he was very young. He was interested in history and was a voracious reader, even as a boy. His heroes were Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. As a teenager, he enrolled in a military school and eventually received a commission as a lieutenant in the French artillery. Through extremely hard work, relentless ambition, charm and charisma, he worked through the ranks and became a general at age 27. Soon he was the most popular general in the French military. Due to the power vacuum and incompetence of the government after the French Revolution, he managed a military coup before we was 30 years old, ending up as the head of government as a First Consul. A few years later he crowned himself Emperor.

Now, that was a self-made man if there has ever been one.

There may be more books written about Napoleon than any other figure in history. Roberts’ book presents new material based on the 33,000 letters Napoleon wrote over the course of his life, sometimes as many as 30 a day. But I am not a historian, so to me, this biography was a first introduction to a great man of history.

Well – great in some measures – and frightening in others. Napoleon was a killing machine. During the 15 years he was in power, he conscripted millions of young French men away from their farms, shops, factories and schools into the military, just to lead them into endless battles to be brutally killed. Many battles “only” had 4,000 killed or wounded. Others 30,000 or more. Of the 600,000 men he took into Russia, eventually reaching Moscow, less than 50,000 or so came back home. Most of the men died of Typhus and other diseases, fatigue, starvation, and on the way home in the winter, the brutal, relentless cold of the Russian winter.

We know about “great battles” in history, names like Austerlitz and Waterloo. What actually is “great” about battles, places where tens of thousands of men lost their lives because of the megalomania of their leaders, all monarchs with grandiose egos and destiny on their minds? Was the greatness in the interest of the people?

Reading about one of the greatest statesmen and leaders in history, I found that there are many lessons to be learned for success and leadership, even now, almost 200 years after his death. Whether I agree with Napoleon’s tactics or not, he was definitely a remarkable man, and one worth reading a huge and long book about. Napoleon set out to be listed among the greats, and nobody will doubt that he achieved just that. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Napoleon, they go together.

Roberts did a great job telling the story of Napoleon, the man, and his life, from the beginning to his last days.

As I worked through this biography, I realized that War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, widely acclaimed as the greatest novel of all time, actually plays during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1810. So I picked up War and Peace, and I am ready to embark now on this huge novel, with keen interest kindled by Napoleon: a Life.

Rating - Four Stars

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Jacob Fugger was born in 1459 in Augsburg, Germany and died 1525, at the age of 66. He single-handedly created a banking and trade empire that reached to all ends of the globe. His company was the largest commercial concern the world had ever seen. He was essentially the father of modern banking and finance, and the methods that he applied still are used in business today, including double-entry bookkeeping.

Most Americans have never heard of Jacob Fugger. He was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519). He was most active at the time when Magellan circumnavigated the globe, and when Columbus first arrived in America. I, too, had never heard of Jacob Fugger.

Fugger made his money initially as a trader of textiles. He then got into mining of copper, silver and mercury, and basically cornered the market on metals. He was a trader and a banker. And here is where it gets interesting: At a time when the Catholic Church forbid money lending for interest, calling the sin “usury,” he made a huge amount of his money by lending. Eventually he convinced the Pope to allow lending. He was also instrumental for funding the emperors of his day. The Habsburg emperor Maximilian I might never have been emperor without Fugger’s money. His grandson and successor, Charles V relied exclusively on Fugger to finance his election and then many of his wars. Charles was emperor (and king of Spain) during the time when gold from the Americas started flooding into Europe. Fugger had his hands on the gold by controlling the purses of the emperors.

Günter Ogger wrote a biography about Fugger titled Kauf dir einen Kaiser (buy yourself an emperor), which is part of Steinmetz’s bibliography in the book.

How does one compare very rich people to one another when they live in very different times? Some people compiled lists of assets, converted them to gold, and then valued them. Others compared the assets to the GNP of the times. This was the method Steinmetz used to measure Fugger and list him as the richest man who ever lived. When he died, supposedly his net worth was about 2 percent of the GNP of Europe, indeed a vast amount of money.

During Fugger’s time, he mostly traded in florins, the currency used by Florence, Italy, based on gold, and generally referred to as “pieces of gold” in literature. When the fairy tale writers the Brothers Grimm spoke of pieces of gold, they referred to florins. This book is full of references of florins. For instance, Fugger lent Charles V 544,000 florins to buy his election for emperor. So what is a florin?

I did a little research and found some rough numbers. A weaver (a skilled worker) in the year 1500 would earn one florin every 4 to 6 weeks. A mercenary might earn one or two florins a month. So let’s just average that and say that a florin is pay for a month for an average worker. That would make 12 florins a year an annual normal income. Let’s compare that to $50,000 in today’s America. That would make one florin worth $4166. Ok, let’s say $4000.

Given that, Fugger lent Charles V $2 billion – just to bribe the electors. This reminds me of what it costs to run for U.S. president today. Obviously, Fugger was Charles’ SuperPAC. Incidentally, it took Fugger years to get his money back from the Emperor. It’s pretty tricky when you loan money to a guy who is above the law and can just kill you if he so chooses. The only thing protecting Fugger from demise, over and over again, was that the royals knew quite well that they’d need his money in the future.

So maybe he was not the richest man who ever lived, but he was one of them. Here are a few lists that I found for comparison:

He is number 6 on this list.

He is not at all on this list.

He is number 6 on this list.

He is number 7 on this list.

He is number 4 on this list.

I am glad I didn’t read the negative Amazon reviews of this book before I read it myself. Some reviewers blasted the author for bad and clumsy writing. I usually don’t like clumsy writing, but I noticed none of it. The writing is simple, succinct, informative and easy to read. The stories are not chronological, but rather topical, so there are overlaps in the way the chapters flow through history. It worked fine for me.

I was delighted by how much I learned about the Renaissance. The period came alive in front of my eyes. How do you do international business without telephones, fax machines, the Internet, and travel other than walking or by coach. How do you survive when the church can just accuse you of heresy and burn you at the stake if they so choose? How do you trade when the roads are infested with highway robbers?

I found The Richest Man Who Ever Lived a highly readable and informative book that inspired me to find more material about history during that time.

Rating - Four Stars

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Movie Review: Everest


Up to 1996, one in four people who climbed Mt. Everest died in the attempt. One in four.

Then, in 1996, when commercial outfits started taking up amateurs, things got more dangerous. 1996 was the most deadly year in Everest history, when 15 people died on the mountain, eight of them on May 11, 1996.

The events of that expedition and fateful day were chronicled by Outside writer Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air. I read that book at the time, first because I have always been a fan of Krakauer’s writings, and second because I am a hobby climber. The book takes you onto the mountain and into the action and eventual disaster.

This movie brings the events of May 1996 to life. We get to know what drives the  women and men to put themselves into such extremely risky situations. Think about it: One in four people summiting Everest dies, usually on the way back down! What kind of mindset does it take to make a decision to accept this kind of risk?

The movie Everest tries to answer this question. Of course, the scenery, the tremendous forces of unbridled nature, and the indomitable spirit of the humans trying to battle it make for an epic movie.

Mild Spoiler Ahead…

I knew the story, I knew the outcome, I knew who would survive and who would perish. Rob Hall, the New Zealander guide and the main protagonist, was the first non-Sherpa who had summited Everest five times. Climbers don’t come more experienced than that. Yet, he perished on May 11, when one of his clients begged him to help him reach the peak. Rob broke his own rule and went back to the peak after turn-around time. He eventually paid with his life. Rob Hall, as well as the 250 other people who died on the mountain over the years, is still there, a frozen corpse, at the exact spot, in the exact position, where he took his last breath.

Everest tells the stories of the adventurers without moralizing and without unduly focusing on their individual triumphs or deaths. It just shows it as it is, at a place where humans are not meant to be.

Rating - Four Stars

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A_river_runs_through_it_coverFor a week now we have stayed at a lodge home in rural Montana. In front of a huge stone fireplace sixteen feet high, under giant barn beams that make up the ceiling, on a comfortable couch, the stars bright outside in the vast Montana sky, we watched the movie A River Runs Through It.

It tells the story of two brothers, Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt), the sons of a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt), following their lives from early childhood in Montana in the early 20th century through their younger years into adulthood.

Norman tells the story from his point of view. He is the son that goes off to college and later becomes a college professor. Paul, his hard-living younger brother stays in Montana where he works as a newspaper reporter. The father and the brothers are as different as can be, except for their love of fly fishing. The river ties them all together.

Directed by Robert Redford and based on an autobiographical book by Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It tells a family epic and makes us think of what in life really matters.

Rating - Four Stars

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All the LightIn Paris before World War II, Marie-Laure is a blind French girl. Her father is a locksmith at a Natural History Museum in Paris. He dotes on her, teaches her to be self-sufficient and buys her hugely expensive Braille books of Jules Verne.

Werner and his younger sister Jutta are German orphan children, living in an orphanage in the Ruhr area of Germany, the industrial and coal mining district of the country. Werner is brilliant with electronics and technology. When the Nazis rise, they notice him and he gets a scholarship for one of the best schools in the country. The Reich invests in its youth.

These two protagonists grow up separately before and during the war, and through a series of plot twists, their paths cross in 1944, just as the Allies land in Normandy and start taking France back.

Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” lasted a total of twelve years. He is single-handedly responsible for tens of millions of deaths in Europe, and for turning Germany and the surrounding countries into wastelands of destruction. Hundreds of millions of people’s lives were turned upside down and very often destroyed as a result of the war. Marie-Laure and Werner are common people caught up in the maelstrom of destruction.

Through their stories we see the pain those times inflicted on the people. After the war was over, we follow a few of their friends and relatives all they way to today’s time, and we witness the scars.

My own parents were born in 1935 and 1936 in Germany, children in the war. They could have been Marie-Laure and Werner. I am fortunate that both of them are still alive. When I talk to them today, and ask about their childhood, their eyes do not remain dry, and the pain and suffering is still trapped within them. Their lives never had a chance to unfold, and their entire adulthood, their middle age and their old age are characterized by coping with what was done to them when they were children.

All the Light we Cannot See tells a timeless story, with deep insight, of a brutal time, and a dark age in history. It’s unlike any World War II book, yet, it’s the World War II book that everyone should read.

C’est la vie.

Rating - Four Stars

Buy the book here.

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Zero to One

A book about startup businesses.

Thiel knows something about the subject. He was one of the founders of PayPal and sold the company in 2004. His share was worth several hundred million dollars. Then he bought into Facebook as its first outside investor in 2004, and got a 10% share for $500,000. He then became a venture capitalist, investing in many tech companies and listening to proposals from entrepreneurs every day. He is worth over $2 billion, and his is only 47 years old.

So when Thiel writes about how to build a startup business, it pays to listen.

He is definitely not modest. The book is full of sweeping generalizations and questionable statements of fact that really are just his opinions. He dismisses any business that does not have the potential to become another Facebook or Google.

He says that real entrepreneurs dress in T-shirts and jeans, not suits. Obviously, that’s an opinion, not a fact. He does not know all real entrepreneurs. But he is so full of himself, and so convinced of his methods, that he states those opinions as facts.

Here is such a passage:

The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight— never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit— got us to the truth a lot faster.

— Thiel, Peter; Masters, Blake (2014-09-16). Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (p. 160). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is just one example. But be that as it may, he knows something about startups. If you are working a job and you are happy doing it, don’t read this book. If you want to start a new Chinese take-out place in Palo Alto, definitely don’t read this book. It will crush you. If you want to start a lifestyle business, make a little money for yourself and your family, this book is not worth it.

But – if you want to start a company that makes a dent in the universe (to quote Steve Jobs), if your objective is to start a business that becomes a billion-dollar venture within a few years, this is absolutely, positively required reading.

Annoying, cocky, and maddeningly self-absorbed as Thiel is, he knows what to look for in a startup.

And if your dream is to start one, here you go – buy the book here. It’s the best $11.84 you will ever spend.

Rating - Four Stars

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The subtitle for this book is Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

There are not many people in history that have created a billion-dollar company. The odds against are astronomical. Elon Musk has created several billion-dollar companies, and right now he is running two of them simultaneously. That is utterly astounding. What does it take to do that?

This biography describes who Musk is and how it came about that he was able to accomplish what he did. It starts with his childhood in South Africa, his rocky upbringing and unfortunate family circumstances. He landed in Canada with the proverbial few dollars in his pockets and started working hard, taking menial jobs and trying to be creative. And he made it big. He is now one of the icons of high-tech business in the world. And he has only just started. As I write this, he is only 44.

The biography of Elon Musk is required reading for anyone who wants to start a business.

I have started a business, and run one, and am still running one. Elon Musk started his first business after mine was already established, and he built Tesla and SpaceX long after I was already rolling along. There is a lot I can learn from him.

Reading this excellent biography by Ashlee Vance was a good start.

Rating - Four Stars

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